Nothing you can purchase in a store tastes like homemade kapusta. Nothing. The irony is that the basic preparation contains only 2 ingredients: cabbage and salt, and very little salt at that. Commercially prepared sauerkraut contains additives that combine to produce something that isn’t quite right. The real thing tastes as if it’s been marinated in white wine, is crisp, and has a tang that compliments a wide range of foods. Besides showing up on a Reuben or served alongside sausages, it can combine with other fruits and vegetables in soups, salads, in dumplings, pastries, and stews.The recipe that follows is a Polish version I remember from my childhood. The apples and onions ferment along with the cabbage, and the toasted caraway imparts a special flavor. The result is different than if you add these additional ingredients when you cook kapusta in a recipe. Fermentation is a magical process. This recipe makes enough for 1 gallon (4 L). If you grow cabbage you will probably have a lot more than 5 pounds (2.25 kg). Multiply the quantities for the amount you want to make. For each pound of cabbage (500 g) use 2 teaspoons of salt (10 mL).
Fermentation was a means to preserve cabbage and other vegetables before electricity. All homes had an area that was cool enough to keep it in the crock all winter. A root cellar also provided a place to put up large quantities of prepared foods. You need to find something heavy enough to keep the shredded cabbage completely submerged during fermentation. A glacier passed through my yard a few thousand years ago, so I have plenty of smooth, round, flattish stones to choose from—boulders if I need them.
Yield 4 qts Kapusta (4 L)
5 lb cabbage, cored and shredded (2.25 kg)
3 Tbsp plus 1 tsp pickling salt (50 mL)
4 apples, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin
1 tsp caraway seeds (5 mL) toast in a skillet until fragrant, bruise with a mortar and pestle
Toast the caraway seeds in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Bruise them with a mortar and pestle to release their flavor. Do not reduce the seeds to a powder, just crack them open.
Rinse the cabbage under cold running water. Peel away the outer leaves, and reserve if you wish to use them to cover the fermenting cabbage. Cut the cabbage from top to bottom, and then again into quarters. Cut out the core from each quarter and discard.
Slice or shred the cabbage as thinly as you can, and place it in a large bowl. Squeeze it with your hands or use a potato masher to work some liquid out of it. Add the grated apples, sliced onion, and caraway seeds. Mix well to distribute the ingredients evenly. Put a handful or two of the shredded cabbage mixture into a crock, and sprinkle with some of the salt. Continue the layering of cabbage and salt until the crock is filled. Press it down as you go so it is solidly packed. If there is any liquid left in the bowl pour that over the cabbage.
Completely cover top of the shredded cabbage with a plate or other covering so that once weighted the shredded cabbage will be completely submerged. The outer leaves of the cabbage are a traditional covering. I use a smooth, roundish, flattish stone for a weight. If you haven’t got one use a jar filled with water, or a zip-lick bag filled with brine (in case it leaks).
Cover the top of the crock with a double layer of cheesecloth or other breathable fabric to keep out dust and insects. The process of fermenting takes place in an oxygen-free environment where friendly bacteria convert the natural sugars into lactic acid. Place the crock in a cool, dark place. The cellar floor or a closet is good for this purpose. Temperatures 60º to 68ºF (15 to 20ºC) is the range that works best. If it is too warm fermentation will occur too quickly for the requisite tang to develop. It may also will get soggy and turn an off-color.
Check the progress of the fermentation the next day. If the cabbage is not completely submerged in liquid add some more brine at the rate of 1 teaspoon pickling salt (5 mL) to 1 cup of water (240 mL). I needed to add 2 cups of brine to this batch. After three days, take a long stick or the handle of a long cooking spoon, and poke a few holes all the way to the bottom of the crock. This will allow the gases at the bottom of the vessel to escape. If any foam has accumulated on the surface, skim that off, and replace the plate, the weight, and the cloth.
Fermentation should take 3 to 6 weeks depending upon the temperature of your house, and how tangy you want it. I find that 5 to 6 weeks is about right. Check it for doneness by smelling; it should have developed a wonderful zesty aroma. To make sure, taste it. If it needs more time to ripen check it again in a few days.
When done, remove the cloth, plate, and weight, skim any bacterial bloom or scum from the surface. Cover tightly, and place in a refrigerator, which will arrest the fermentation. You can also can kapusta by packing it into hot, sterilized jars. A pair of kitchen tongs is a handy to for packing the jars. You will probably have to add some more brine to top off the jars. Do this at the rate of 1 teaspoon pickling salt (5 mL) to 1 cup of water (240 mL). Leave ¼ inch of headspace (6 mm). Process for 15 minutes counting from the time the water returns to a boil.